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GRASSROOTS GROUP IN MIDDLEPORT AREA REACHES BEYOND BURNED-OUT BUILDING

Grassroots-Middleport started when a group of residents banded together to save a building from demolition. Nearly two years later, it is trying to improve the entire community.

The nonprofit group has branched out into a citizens organization pushing for grant money or village improvements. It now focuses its energies on such projects as planting trees and supporting the arts.

"They aren't just about a burnt building anymore," Thomas Conley, a Village Board member, said of the group. "They've become more of a service organization, doing lots of things throughout the community."

After a 1999 fire extensively damaged three connecting structures in the downtown district, Middleport residents banded together to preserve one of the buildings, the former Jones Hardware store.

Under the leadership of co-founder Anne Holahan, Grassroots acquired the building and the initial funds to shore up the facade. While reconstruction is under way, members are hard at work procuring funds for other projects. The environment history, and the arts seem to be Grassroots' current areas of interest.

After a year at the helm, Holahan says she sees Grassroots' role as initiating and supporting programs that improve Middleport.

"We want to enhance community parks, bring performing arts to Middleport and preserve the historic business district," she said.

Although new to grant writing, Grassroots has had considerable success. Through grants, donations and fund raising, it has brought $150,000 into the community.

The group will hold a major event for the group on Labor Day when it joins forces with the Towpath Optimists and other local organizations to mount a Buskers Festival.

The Niagara County Council of the Arts has granted Grassroots $2,000 for performers fees for the event.

"Buskers are street performers," Holahan said. "We plan on having musicians, jugglers and even contortionists." Acts already scheduled include the Drumming Fools of Canada and the Bourbon Street Brass.

Last year, Grassroots-Middleport received a $9,000 grant from the Niagara County Environmental Fund to purchase and plant 190 trees and shrubs throughout the village as well as the Towns of Royalton and Hartland. Most of trees were planted on village and town parkland, and at town offices. Some were planted on private property in the village and at an elementary school and senior citizens center.

Rosemary Flood, manager of Middleport Villa, a senior citizens residence on Telegraph Road, says the facility was thrilled to be offered the trees. "We had lost some trees in windstorms, and this gave us the opportunity to be able to replace them."

Similarly, teachers and students at Middleport Elementary School were described as delighted to plant a donated weeping mulberry and dozens of bulbs in the school's garden.

Holahan says she would like to see more of that kind of crossover effort, with Grassroots supporting community projects as well as its own.

The area also will gain two new informational kiosks, located along the towpath in Middleport and Gasport. The signs will tell boaters and tourists about the villages, as well as some history of the area. The kiosks, which will be installed this spring, were funded by the State Canal Corp.

Holahan said Grassroots hopes to work with the community to get even more funding from state and federal sources.

"The key is to make Middleport known to government officials," she said.

Holahan's efforts have led her to state conferences and membership on the Recreationway Trails Interim Board, and has gotten the attention of Assemblyman David E. Seaman, R-Lockport, and State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda.

Last year, the state legislators presented Grassroots-Middleport with a check for $50,000 on behalf of the State Community Enhancement Funds for Historic Preservation.

Conley said he is very impressed that Grassroots appears to have accomplished so much without partisan politics.

"The demographics of the group are such that they represent everyone," he said. He also suggests that the organization has changed the attitude in Middleport. People are talking more openly than before about the canal and making positive changes, he said.

Getting canal funding is an opportunity of a lifetime Holahan says. "The canal built this village, and I think it will also be responsible for rebuilding it."

The Jones Hardware building, meanwhile, is being reconstructed under the direction of architect Kathleen Kinan of Buffalo. Much of the first phase, the cleanup, was done by Grassroots members themselves, who lugged burned timbers and blackened debris from the site.

The structure is closed to the public, but members hope it will be open this summer. Cement for the basement floor was poured recently, and workers are preparing to lay the subflooring for the first story.

Bids are out for timber-framing the second story.

"We are seeking out local people to do most of the work to support the local economy," Holahan said.

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